‘It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to talk about what’s wrong. It’s OK to play with girls if you like them, to dress like girls if you want to, to like the colour pink if you like it, [..] to not be all that bothered about football if you’re not all that bothered about football.’

‘How Not to Be a Boy’, Robert Webb.

We’ve all read special books that really mean a lot to us. I’ve got a shelf full, but How Not To Be A Boy felt very personal for me. In my review last week I discussed the messages Webb shared and some of the shocking anecdotes he recalled, but I was wary of including too much of my own personal experiences in a review of a book that was written by somebody else. So I’ve saved them for this week (you lucky things).

I know it’s not my parents or my family who were to blame, this isn’t a dig at them, and I’m not saying that the past has traumatised me beyond repair, but the rules of the patriarchy and society that Webb discussed definitely loomed over my childhood.

For me a big issue growing up was ‘football’. I just didn’t get it. It wasn’t that I hated it (although I have grown to hate the sound of football due to a) Too much exposure of football crowds chanting tunelessly on the TV as a child and b) Now living within ear shot of a football ground.  Why can’t they sing something with words rather than sounds? Songs that I know. ABBA, for instance.) Football just never interested me. Being a fan, my Dad was, I’m sure, disappointed at first but he’s accepted it, after a lot of perseverance. As I grew up, I knew that it was weird that I didn’t like football. After all I am male and all males have to like football, right? I began to notice that people found it hard to talk to me after I dropped the ‘I don’t like football’ bomb. We’d go to parties at the local club or get visits from extended family members and every conversation seemed to go like this.

‘And what team do you support lad?’

‘Oh, I don’t like football.’

‘Ahh…..’*quizzical look*

END OF CONVERSATION.

There were rare instances where, following ‘the look’, I’d get ‘So….do you like any other sports? Rugby? Cricket?’ To which I’d fail to redeem myself by saying ‘No’ or when I was feeling particularly brave ‘No but I do like to read.’ It was just totally incomprehensible that I was a boy who wasn’t involved in sports. I started to get sensitive to it and, knowing I was odd, anxious about the conversation which I knew would come. In a lame attempt to tackle it I started to answer with ‘Liverpool’ in the hope it would shut them up.

Of course, as you get older, you realise that you’re not as odd as you thought and there is nothing wrong with being a boy who is not interested in football, but it was such a big deal for me as a child that I remember being elated if I heard a celebrity on TV admitting that football doesn’t interest him or met another anti-football freak like me. Last year, an ex-family member said, whilst I was in the room, ‘Imagine having a son who didn’t like football. You’d be devastated wouldn’t you?’ This is the kind of message I seemed to be confronted with regularly, that I’d failed as a boy because I didn’t like football. Of course, as an adult I was able to shrug off his comments and stick two fingers up behind the idiot’s back, but a comment like that during my childhood would have really upset me.

So I was already failing the stereotype via my choices of hobby, but ‘the rules’ really started to affect me when I started school (Note: this was probably the only time I was ever seen as a rule breaker during my childhood). I don’t know how it happened but I ended up having a circle of friends who were all female. Perhaps I didn’t prove myself to be included as ‘one of the boys’ or perhaps I just thought ‘God, I’d rather be sitting over there with the girls than having competitions about who can wee the highest up the urinal with the boys.’ Perhaps I took part in said competition, failed, and was therefore excluded from anything ‘Boy’ for the next ten years. I don’t know. I just preferred to stick with the girls. ‘Oh, he’s a ladies man’ teachers would tease. ‘Oh he’s gay’, older boys would decide.

I didn’t want to be a girl or dress like them. Apart from a bit of an obsession with the pink power ranger, I wasn’t overly fussed about the colour pink. To me, I just had a bunch of friends. I couldn’t understand why it was an issue for a lot of people. The way I was spoken to, it was almost like I was letting myself down by hanging round with girls. Like I was showing a weakness by associating with them, because they were lesser beings than men (which is obviously totally incorrect). The fact they were girls never bothered me, until people started telling me very bluntly that I should be bothered. I remember in the last few weeks in year six, one boy in my class gave me a bit of a thumping in order to prepare myself for secondary school, where, in his opinion, I was going to get regular thumpings because of who my friends were. Great. It’s always good to have something to look forward to, isn’t it?

And so, like Webb, the ‘Sovereign Importance of Early Homophobia’ came into play. It seemed that because my friends where girls this made me more susceptible to becoming gay and in my town that is a big no-no. Throughout high school the same message haunted me – Do Not Be Gay. Whether it was someone in my family tutting when a gay character was on the TV or one of my English teachers reacting like I’d asked for it when a bunch of nasty girls humiliated me during class. It might have been listening to my Mum use some mildly offensive term to ‘joke’ with my brother or it could have been the time someone close to me gave me a very serious talking to because my gay friend had signed off a message on my Facebook wall with a kiss and, to them, it ‘looked really, really bad.’ The message was loud and clear. Some people decided for me and took it upon themselves to spread the news. All assumed from the company I kept.

I met my then-Best Friend in secondary school and she was a very vibrant and resilient girl. It never crossed my mind that I shouldn’t be friends with her because of her sex, I just thought she was really cool and I admired her confidence! But, by choosing another female friend, I’d inadvertently chosen five years of people telling me I was wrong, without even knowing me properly. I wouldn’t say I was bullied any more than the next person but I did have a label, which I could never shake. I was the boy who had girl friends (never to be confused with girlfriends. That didn’t start until well into my teens and the plural was never necessary). Whether it was a friend putting in a sneaky comment or an older boy humiliating me in front of the whole class just to get a few laughs, there seemed to be something every day. I’d never change it because I believe that my best friend was a better friend to me than any of the boys at my school would have been. We had a lot of common interests and we used to laugh so much! And there were others. I had a whole bunch of friends, most of whom were female, and I don’t regret meeting any one of them. But it’s a shame that my school life was tainted by the most humiliating and hurtful actions just because I chose to be friends with someone of the opposite sex. That decision seemed to put me into a category – I was a boy who chose female company so I must be weak. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that the females I befriended were probably more bolshie, stubborn and tough than most of the year 11 boys put together. But they were also the funniest and most supportive people I could wish to be around.

Secondary school was tough for other reasons.  It was a time of unrest in my home life and I needed someone to confide in, a service which was gladly provided by all of my female friends. Had they been boys, it may have been a different story, because society doesn’t take kindly to boys who listen or care.

As for talking about my feelings, I’ve been fortunate to have plenty of people to confide in over the years, should I need to, but the pressure of ‘manning up’ has certainly been there. I had to be strong, solely because I was a man. During a particularly grim period a number of years ago, I confided in a doctor about feeling constantly on-edge and miserable (at the time, dismissive of the ideas that I might be anxious or depressed, because I’d been conditioned to think of those illnesses as weaknesses. I now know that the strongest person can suffer these conditions). The first doctor told me to buck up and fix my feelings ‘the British way’ (whatever that is….having a cup of tea?). The second one told me to find a good woman. I’m thankful that, after many dark months of feeling awful and constantly on the verge of tears, I was able to manage my feelings in my own way, but to someone less fortunate than me, that advice from a professional could have been very dangerous. Webb’s book highlighted just how dangerous the pressures society puts on men to bottle up their emotions can be and it’s terrifying to think so many suffer in silence.

So in 2017, I finally got the advice I needed twenty years ago. It might have come too late, but as I grew up I taught myself that ‘normal’ didn’t exist, that I shouldn’t be ashamed of who I was and that the problem lay in the way my life was viewed by others, not with myself. It would have been great to have been given this advice when I was younger, and I’m sure in a way it was hinted at by some people, but I can’t regret anything because it’s made me who I am. That’s sort of why I shared it (or a slice of it. I have enough material for many, many blog posts).  Yes, it’s been a bit of self-indulgent therapy for me, but I hope that if the teenage me is out there reading this they’ll realise that they don’t need to be ashamed, or feel like the odd one out because it’s absolutely OK to be themselves. You might feel like a failure at the moment, but in time you’ll realise you’re only failing a stereotype, and that can only be a good thing.

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